- La femme italienne à l'époque de la Renaissance: Sa vie privée et mondaine, son influence sociale
When it first appeared in 1907, this handsome and densely documented work was one of the first historical monographs ever published to focus on women's history. In a trend with Julia Cartwright's works on the d'Este women, and soon followed by Eileen Powers on medieval women, the French Italophile and antiquarian, Emmanuel-Pierre Rodocanachi, problematized women's contributions to society, asking how their roles and powers compared with men's. Women were "the equal of men," his book argues, particularly in fashion and literature; they were "the center of intellectual life." "Woman was thus the charming inspiration and a bit the creator of the Italian Renaissance" (avant-propos). Despite its dated argument, the work remains a valuable resource for the history of costume, family, and marriage customs, now more widely available. The reprint also offers a timely opportunity to revisit the role of the Renaissance in the development of women's history.
As Paola Cosentino's able introduction explains, Rodocanachi's work fully develops the brief section of Jakob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy on women's cultural prominence (part 5). In this section the Swiss cultural historian argues that "woman was the equal of man" in the Renaissance. Rodocanachi, who devoted many decades to the patient excavation of Roman libraries and manuscript repositories, expands Burckhardt's thesis through a minute examination of elite women's lives. Though it was Burckhardt's sweeping essay, and not Rodocanachi's rather pedantically documented tome, that became the foundational text for the argument, this more extended and careful version has much to offer.
The book is organized by life stages, beginning with the birth, childhood, and adolescence of girls. Subsequent chapters treat marriage and dowries; hair and clothing, including a discussion of sumptuary laws; a lengthy treatment of the ideals of female beauty, court amusements, and convent life (a rather secular view of the latter); women's condition and influence in the family and in the state; and, finally, a chapter on love, drawing mainly on humanistic literature and poetry. Rodocanachi's generally rosy view of women's roles is nuanced, as when he acknowledges the legal structures that "placed them in a very inferior condition" (292). The breadth and depth of Rodocanachi's sources are impressive. Years in the Florentine, Venetian, and, particularly, Roman archives furnish references to statutes, court cases, family diaries, notarial records of dowries and marriages, and more. Printed sources include not only the usual canonical, humanistic writings but also lesser-known treatises on the family, women, beauty, travelers' accounts, and so on, many quoted at length or reprinted in full in the appendix. Portraits, too, are analyzed and handsomely reproduced. Particularly in the area of costume and jewelry, this work continues to be an important mine of information and references. [End Page 1177]
The image of the powerful, independent, court woman of the Renaissance, made famous by Burckhardt and elaborated by Rodocanachi, has played an important part in modern women's history. Joan Kelly-Gadol's 1976 attack on the thesis in her article, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" has become a classic example of how women's history could question and revise traditional periodization. Anthologized and cited everywhere, the debate on "Renaissance Woman" has achieved a historiographical fame well beyond the confines of Renaissance scholars. Revisiting Rodocanachi's rich offering may spark a reassessment of Kelly's seminal question, and why it has preoccupied historians for so long.